Robert Frost is often at his best as a poet when “home” is at its worst, and it could not be much worse than in most of his poems about women in the country. In a peculiar way, his treatment of women recalls a nineteenth-century novelistic convention in which the repression of women, and the restriction on their active participation in the outdoor world, force them into exercises of imagination and fancy. Men can busy themselves with affairs outside the “home,” and women are sometimes to be gratified with what is brought back to them, as in “Flower-Gathering.” But when in Section V of “The Hill Wife” the woman has an “extra-vagant” impulse, it is not to bring back flowers but to escape altogether.

It was too lonely for her there,
   And too wild,
And since there were but two of them,
   And no child,

And work was little in the house,
   She was free,
And followed where he furrowed field,
   Or felled tree.

She rested on a log and tossed
   The fresh chips,
With a song only to herself
   On her lips.

And once she went to break a bough
   Of black alder.
She strayed so far she scarcely heard
   When he called her—

And didn’t answer—didn’t speak—
   Or return.
She stood, and then she ran and hid
   In the fern.

He never found her, though he looked
And he asked at her mother’s house
   Was she there.

Sudden and swift and light as that
   The ties gave,
And he learned of finalities
   Besides the grave.

Frost’s sense of the plight of women who have nothing but a home to keep—with too little work if childless, too much if there are boarders or workers on the farm—is responsible for a series of remarkable poems about the frustrations of the imagination and its consequent expression in the distorted forms of obsession, lies, or madness. Very often “home” is the prison of madness, recognized as such by the keepers and so acknowledged by the victims, like the woman in “A Servant to Servants,” who has been to an insane asylum and who is not afraid of the men who board in her house “if they’re not / Afraid of me. There’s two can play at that. / I have my fancies: it runs in the family. / My father’s brother wasn’t right.”

The poem is a long soliloquy delivered to outsiders. In the many poems where one finds them listening to Frost’s isolated country talkers these outsiders usually say nothing or so little that what pretends to be dialogue makes us at a certain point nervously wonder whether it is not really only soliloquy, or an expression of mad loneliness searching through an interior monologue for a listener. These particular outsiders are supposedly camping on the land rented out by the woman’s husband Len. Understandably, she is glad to have someone to talk to; she is worried at the end that they may not stay very much longer; and both feelings make her admission of madness, along with her account of her uncle’s insanity, also an attempt simply to make herself interesting. Everything she says is touched with a possibility that it may not be wholly true. As in all of Frost’s poems about isolated women who indulge in lying, or so we suspect, the lies are more than a form of country exaggeration. They are also, to remember a line from “The Investment,” an attempt to “get some color…out of life” which otherwise is intolerably, hopelessly drab. Her account of the mad uncle’s imprisonment is full of a powerful and self-frightening inventiveness:

   And just when he was at the height,
Father and mother married, and mother
A bride, to help take care of such a
And accommodate her young life to his.
That was what marrying father meant to
She had to lie and hear love things made
By his shouts in the night. He’d shout
   and shout
Until the strength was shouted out of
And his voice died down slowly from
He’d pull his bars apart like bow and
And let them go and make them twang,
His hands had worn them smooth as any
And then he’d crow as if he thought that
   child’s play—
The only fun he had. I’ve heard them
   say, though,
They found a way to put a stop to it.

Like the old man in “The Mountain” who describes the spring on the summit only then to say that he has never seen it, her description is especially interesting because, in the very next line, she admits “I never saw him.” He was before her time. But she did live long enough in the house where her uncle was kept till “It got so I would say—you know, half fooling—/ ‘It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail.”‘ In the new house to which Len moves her, her imagination feeds again on pictures, fictions, things that are extraordinary. Only now these are excited by the long views from her kitchen window. She resembles the woman in “The Hill Wife” who at last “didn’t answer…didn’t speak” about the thwarted intensities of feeling within her:


It seems to me
I can’t express my feelings, any more
Than I can raise my voice or want to lift
My hand (oh, I can lift it when I have
Did ever you feel so? I hope you never.
It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice like left
That seems to tell me how I ought to
And would feel if I wasn’t all gone
You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it’s a fair, pretty sheet of water.
I stand and make myself repeat out loud
The advantages it has, so long and
Like a deep piece of some old running
Cut short off at both ends. It lies five
Straightaway through the mountain
From the sink window where I wash the
And all our storms come up toward the
Drawing the slow waves whiter and
   whiter and whiter.
It took my mind off doughnuts and soda
To step outdoors and take the water
A sunny morning, or take the rising
About my face and body and through
   my wrapper,
When a storm threatened from the
   Dragon’s Den,
And a cold chill shivered across the lake.

Near the end of this passage, which might bring anyone to tears, there are indications of a romantic and highly erotic inclination, and, elsewhere in the poem, of sexual frustration in this childless marriage. Love has been exhausted by drudgery, and her marriage is now much like her mother’s: “Father and mother married, and mother came / A bride to help take care of such a creature, / And accommodate her young life to his. / That was what marrying father meant to her.” She is married to someone incapable of more than the platitudes of accommodation. As against the preserving care and passion of her language about the water and the waves in storm, Len’s language is an echo of what is heard from the “old-stone savage” in “Mending Wall,” the same sort of mindless compliance with the least that life has to offer: “Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. / He says the best way out is always through.” The poem is a frightening and pitiable dramatization of how a “home,” deprived of emotional fulfillments of any kind, can prompt a woman to perverse and beautiful extremities.

The poem anticipates the equally remarkable, somewhat later (1922) “The Witch of Coös”:

I stayed the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountain, with a mother and
Two old-believers. They did all the talk-

The talking involves a good deal of humbugging, though again to an extent we cannot surely determine, by a woman who wants to maintain her neighborhood reputation as a witch: “Summoning spirits isn’t ‘Button, button, / Who’s got the button,’ I would have them know.” The story is of a skeleton who, in the words of the son,

   left the cellar forty years ago
And carried itself like a pile of dishes
Up one flight from the cellar to the
Another from the kitchen to the
Another from the bedroom to the attic,
Right past both father and mother, and
   neither stopped it.
Father had gone upstairs; mother was
I was a baby: I don’t know where I was.

Once more we have an account of something by somebody who did not see it and who, perhaps for that reason, extemporizes in vivid and show-off metaphors, such as the memorable skeleton that, according to the son, “carried itself like a pile of dishes.” Understandably, the mother, in her account, chooses a metaphor no less inventive but somewhat more romantic—the bones are put together “like a chandelier”:

I had a vision of them put together
Not like a man, but like a chandelier.
So suddenly I flung the door wide on
A moment he stood balancing with
And all but lost himself. (A tongue of
Flashed out and licked along his upper
Smoke rolled inside the sockets of his
Then he came at me with one hand
The way he did in life once; but this time
I struck the hand off brittle on the floor,
And fell back from him on the floor
The finger-pieces slid in all directions.

The telltale keepsake bone cannot be found in the button box, and even if it could it would not prove that the skeleton was a former lover killed by her husband, Toffile. All Toffile does, even by her account, is act like an unusually indulgent mate, willing to believe his wife’s claim that a skeleton has come up from the basement, though he cannot see it or hear it. He is then willing to bolt the attic, never to open it again, as if to support her further claim, never more substantiated than any of the others, that the skeleton has chosen to go there.


A pattern seems to emerge from these poems. In “The Witch of Coös” as in “A Servant to Servants” we have a woman imagining a figure of insane, frustrated, and obscene sexuality caged in a house with a married couple. And this married couple, too, is ever so subtly characterized as possibly sexless, possibly frigid, and therefore potentially obscene. On the night of her vision

The bulkhead double doors were
And swollen tight and buried under
The cellar windows were banked up with
And swollen tight and buried under

The repetitions give an emotional intensity that might be expected from a woman who wants to interpret the always unsteady movements of a skeleton, reputed to be her former lover, as a “balancing with emotion.” This is the same woman who, before she offers her images of “something swollen tight and buried under snow,” admits that

   The only fault my husband found with
I went to sleep before I went to bed,
Especially in winter when the bed
Might just as well be ice and the clothes
The night the bones came up the cellar
Toffile had gone to bed alone and left me,
But left an open door to cool the room off
So as to sort of turn me out of it.

A widow now, with a son who seems surprised at her willingness to tell a stranger that the skeleton was of a man who once had his way with her, she at least has the pleasure, having also put her husband in the grave, of a bed to herself and some distraught bones that at night sometimes come down from the attic to “stand perplexed / Behind the door and headboard of the bed / Brushing their chalky skull with chalky fingers.”

“Extravagance” of imagination such as is found in “The Witch of Coös” and “A Servant to Servants” derives from characters who react vigorously against specifically portrayed domestic confinements of “home.” Their ghoulishness is very different from the sense of expanded possibility, and of greater domestic enclosure, such as we find in the woman of “The Death of the Hired Man” when she holds out an apron to the moon, but it is more characteristic of what is to be found in the best of Frost’s domestic narratives. Especially when a woman is the speaker in such poems the images tend to be at once terrifying, comically macabre, and sexually charged. These are poems of imaginative extravagance, describing women stuck at home rather than men wandering beyond the boundaries of the homestead.

There are instances of actual wanderings away from home, as in “The Hill Wife,” and in “The Fear,” of a woman who feels she must go forth to confront some outside presence, possibly an intruder, possibly a lover, and possibly no one. “The Fear” is about a woman’s efforts to validate the images that haunt a home and deprive it of its ascribed function as a place in which to live and to love. “Home” in “The Fear” is a place over which the couple seems to exercise only the most tentative and harassed authority. The opening, like the opening of “Home Burial,” locates the essential characters, objects, lighting, and movement with a kind of cinematic genius:

A lantern light from deeper in the barn
Shone on a man and woman in the door
And threw their lurching shadows on a
Nearby, all dark in every glossy window.
A horse’s hoof pawed once the hollow
And the back of the gig they stood
Moved in a little. The man grasped a
The woman spoke out sharply, “Whoa,
   stand still!—
I saw it just as plain as a white plate,”
She said, “as the light on the dashboard
Along the bushes at the roadside—a
   man’s face.
You must have seen it too.”

“I didn’t see it.

Are you sure—“

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“—it was a face?”

“Joel, I’ll have to look. I can’t go in,
I can’t, and leave a thing like that
Doors locked and curtains drawn will
   make no difference.
I always have felt strange when we came
To the dark house after so long an
And the key rattled loudly into place
Seemed to warn someone to be getting
At one door as we entered at another.
What if I’m right, and someone all the
Don’t hold my arm!”

The light “deeper in the barn” shines on the man and wife as if spotting them as intruders. The poem refers to them even on the familiar terrain of their own lives, only as “a man and woman in the door.” In some sense they are strangers to a territory they are supposed to share, and for the reason that so much of the life of the wife is obsessed—owned, so to speak—by someone else, some haunting presence. Metrically, the dialogue is managed so that her alienations from her husband are given an especially painful stress. It is implied that there have been many other instances similar to the present one where her sense of pursuit and intrusion have had to go unconfirmed:

“I didn’t see it.

Are you sure—“

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“—it was a face?”

The splitting of these few lines allows such a range of metrical options and such variations of voice that the “strained relation” between the man and the woman is inseparable from the “strained relation” between the regular measure of blank verse and the irregular accent of speaking intonation. The poem thereby sustains metrically all the possibilities of feeling in the kind of explosive equilibrium which is at work between the speakers themselves.

The woman’s very determination to validate her fear makes it seem all the more like a psychotic conjuration. And when, in an eerie confrontation on the road, they do meet a man who turns out to be only a stranger giving his young son the experience of a country walk at night, the genius of the poem resides in Frost’s letting us see that far from being reassured she is thereby made even more terrified:

“We’re stopping for the fortnight down
   at Dean’s.”

“But if that’s all—Joel—you realize—
You won’t think anything. You under-
You understand that we have to be
This is a very, very lonely place.—
Joel!” She spoke as if she couldn’t turn.
The swinging lantern lengthened to the
It touched, it struck, it clattered and
   went out.

Her call for “Joel!” goes unanswered. Possibly, though we cannot know it, he has impatiently turned around and gone home. But his disappearance, and the extinguishing of the lamp, are meant to suggest something more terrifying to her even than the possibility that the man she has seen on the road is a former lover come back to haunt them. The effort to externalize her “fear” has proved ludicrous; there was indeed nothing “out there” to be exposed by the lantern, and we might at this point remember that at the outset a lantern “shone” on them. At the end “the fear” is in them, or in her, the result of imaginings that have been betrayed. She is left calling in the darkness of the night on a husband for help he will not give her, and it is a darkness now deprived of any objectification for her dread.

Frost’s poetry recurrently dramatizes the discovery that the sharing of a “home” can produce imagined fears of uncontrollable threat inside or outside. “Home” can become the source of those fears from which it is supposed to protect us; it can become the habitation of that death whose anguish it is supposed to ameliorate. And this brings us to one of Frost’s greatest poetic dramatizations of the theme, “Home Burial.” Here, as in “The Fear,” the pressure is shared by a husband and wife, but once again the role of the husband is ambiguous. Though he does his best to comprehend the wife’s difficulties, he is only partly able to do so. The very title of the poem means something about the couple as well as about the dead child buried in back of the house. It is as if “home” were a burial plot for all of them.

The opening lines of Frost’s dramatic narratives are usually wonderfully deft in suggesting the metaphoric nature of “home,” the human opportunities or imperatives which certain details represent for a husband or a wife. In “The Fear,” the couple is already outside the house, which is described as a place unoccupied, and so compelling is the wife’s “extra-vagance” of imagination that they do not enter the house in the course of the poem; in “Home Burial,” the couple are trapped inside the house, which is described as a kind of prison, or perhaps more aptly, a mental hospital. Even the wife’s glance out the window can suggest to the husband the desperation she feels within the confines of what has always been his family’s “home”; it looks directly on the family graveyard which now holds the body of their recently dead child:

He saw her from the bottom of the
Before she saw him. She was starting
Looking back over her shoulder at some
She took a doubtful step and then undid
To raise herself and look again. He
Advancing toward her: “What is it you
From up there always?—for I want to
She turned and sank upon her skirts at
And her face changed from terrified to
He said to gain time: “What is it you
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me,
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and
   again, “Oh.”

“What is it—what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me
   what it is.”

“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the
The little graveyard where my
   people are!
So small the window frames the whole of
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is
There are three stones of slate and one
   of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind
But I understand: it is not the stone,
But the child’s mound—“

“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that their feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. For a comparable sense of estrangement communicated mostly by silent uses of space in a “home,” a supposedly shared area, perhaps the best analogy is not to be found in literature but in film, such as the opening of Antonioni’s La Notte.

But of course Frost’s special genius is in the placement of words. The first line poses the husband as a kind of spy; the opening of the second line suggests a habituated wariness on her part, but from that point to line 5 we are shifted back to his glimpse of her as she moves obsessively again, as yet unaware of being watched, to the window. Suggestions of alienation, secretiveness, male intimidation (“advancing toward her”) within a situation of mutual distrust, a miasmic fear inside as well as outside the house—we are made to sense this before anyone speaks. Initially the fault seems to lie mostly with the husband. But as soon as she catches him watching her, and as soon as he begins to talk, it is the grim mutuality of their dilemma and the shared responsibilities for it that sustain the dramatic intelligence and power of the poem.

Thus, the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him seems confirmed by the fact that instead of showing fear at his “advancing toward her,” her face, on his near approach, changes from “terrified to dull.” Still, the choice of “until” and “under” in the phrase “mounting until she cowered under him” suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still (“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear”) with its allowable lack of stress on the word “now” and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word “dear.” These surges of surreptitious feeling between the two obviously result not from their immediate juxtaposition on the stairs but from a customary incapacity to share any feelings with each other. She is “sure that he wouldn’t see” what she has been staring at—“blind creature” that he is.

Of course he does see what is out there, the child’s grave. And her challenge then to “Tell me what it is” is merely the first of many instances in which differences are defined, as they so often are in Frost, as differences in the use of words, in the way one speaks or hears things, in the uses to which a metaphor is put, be it sane or crazy, brutal or insensitive: “You don’t know how to ask it,” she complains, and he—“My words are nearly always an offense. / I don’t know how to speak of anything”; or, later, “A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead,” to which in the next line she replies, “You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.” Her lengthy indictment of him near the end of the poem begins with her claim, “I can repeat the very words you were saying…think of it, talk like that at such a time!”

One of the first times the husband mentions the graveyard, he does betray a certain tactless dominance and possessiveness (“The little graveyard where my people are!”), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance (“So small the window frames the whole of it”). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?” In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband’s comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom, is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage.

But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her “Don’t—don’t go. / Don’t carry it to someone else this time,” he is less peremptory than is she: “‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried,” a line that is as remarkably powerful in its effect as a similar one in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: “Will you please please please please please please please stop talking?” She is asking him not to speak; he is asking her not to leave him.

Out of some terrible fastidiousness she seems to want to abridge even what is left of their relationship, while he, because of love, and some incipient pride of place in the community, is doing his best to maintain some sort of contact:

“My words are nearly always an
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk. We could have some
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt
   those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together
   without them.
But two that do can’t live together with
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t—
   don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time,
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it
   the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be

“There you go sneering now!”

“I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to
God, what a woman! And it’s come to
A man can’t speak of his own child
   that’s dead.”

Sexuality in Frost has been noted, when at all, with a kind of surprise. And yet in a very great number of his poems it points to his consuming interest in the temporal limits that beset all efforts, in life or in poetry, to sustain the relation of one thing, or one person, to another. The husband and wife here cannot “ask” anything of each other or “tell” anything without giving offense partly because they both are flawed in their sense of time and of timing. With her desire to stop everything in the interest of mourning the death of an infant, she cannot understand his apparent incapacity to mourn at all and his choosing to talk, instead, of everyday concerns. She does not see that this is his only way of managing grief, of not letting it consume his or her life. And the words she accuses him of using as he sat there talking on the day he buried his child—“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build”—form themselves without his knowing it, but with complete appropriateness, into a metaphor for the way nature, if only by some accident of weather, will erode whatever human beings might make to protect themselves from the reality of change and death. The wife sees and then describes her husband’s actions on that day with an angry exactitude, a kind of novelistic passion for detail, characteristic of country women in the poems we have been looking at:

“If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—
   his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so
And roll back down the mound beside
   the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t
   know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the
To look again, and still your spade kept
Then you came in. I heard your rum-
   bling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on
   your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”

There is a genius here of a sort found in the brilliantly right sentence in Joyce’s “The Dead” when Gretta remembers how her dead lover of long ago stood under her window in a cold that was to chill him to his death: “I can see his eyes as well as well!” she says to Gabriel. “He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.” Allen Tate remarks on how a vision of the past is framed with startling immediacy by the mention of that “tree,” how it lets us share a reality vividly present to the person speaking. The same peculiar convergence of past and present occurs here, thanks to Frost’s keen sense of the power of variation and repetition: “Making the gravel leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly.” Her charge continues, and with the same haunted exactness of recollection:

“I can repeat the very words you were
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy
Will rot the best birch fence a man can
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to
To do with what was in the darkened

It is important here to notice the comparative bareness of the attendant language when she quotes the metaphor of the “birch fence.” His inability to respond effectively to her charges is understandable: an indictment cannot be answered when it is only more or less a description, as if certain words and acts are inherently contemptible. “I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed,” he says, and indeed he is being “cursed”: there is no word more apt for what she says to him. It is worth recollecting here something that Frost wrote in a letter to Wilbert Snow, a poet and professor of English at Wesleyan University, in 1933:

My mind goes back to how true Turgeneff holds the balance between protagonists and antagonists in the death of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. He is perfect in his nonpartizanship. I never quite like to hear a wife turned on against her husband or vice versa. They know too much about each other and they are not disinterested. They lack, what they should lack, detachment. Maybe it bothers me as a breach of manners.

On the chance that the wife’s accusations might prove more persuasive than they should Frost corrects the flow of our sympathies by allowing for a curious imbalance in that extended part of the poem given to her complaints about the brevity of all human sorrow. It is as if even the proportions of the poem—its form and decorum—much less those of mourning, must be swelled out of proper shape by the wife’s obsession with her grievances. The catalogue of her complaints is a symptom of how for her they have become a way of deadening a deeper grief too painful to be borne. Her list of grievances is no adequate metaphor, that is, for the grief she feels. All she can do is insist that “I won’t have grief so,” won’t have it, that is, dissipated by the passage of time. In response, one might think of a poem called “Good Relief” never collected by Frost in any volume, in which he says that “No state has found a perfect cure for grief / In law, in gospel, or in root or herb.”* “Grief without grievance” was a dictum for Frost; the limits of sympathy were no less prescribed by the nature of things than were the limits of metaphor. A bit like the wife here was his sister Jeanie, as described in a letter of April 12, 1920, to Louis Untermeyer:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilitist. I must say she was pretty well broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war [World War I] was thought of…. She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn’t find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. She included me in the unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad.

And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other peoples’ troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity.

The experience of reading the poem is that the wife’s talk in this long peroration has a driven and dissociated quality, not only in the form of the poem but in the conversation going on in it. That is why the husband feels that she has somehow purged herself and that the “talk” will of itself have relieved her and the situation of a kind of swelling:

“There, you have said it all and you feel
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close
   the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it
Amy! There’s someone coming down the

You—oh, you think the talk is all. I
   must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I
   make you—“

“If—you—do!” She was opening the
   door wider.
“Where do you mean to go? First tell
   me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force.
   I will!—“

Clearly, she cannot say “it all” because her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal “extravagancy” on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness.

Besides being an affecting human drama, “Home Burial” reveals the limits, through the consciousness of these two unique people, of “home” as a place, a form, a mode of discourse in which often unmanageably extreme states of feeling occur. But if the limits are sad and terrifying, Frost seems nonetheless sure of their necessity. His decorums, he would have it, are consistent with reality and, if respected, can make life at least manageable. Violations of decorum in a poem or in any other formed relationship are a cause as well as a symptom of induced terror.

“Poetry is measured in more senses than one,” Frost wrote to Sidney Hook in September 1929. “It is measured feet, but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short.” It could be said that the central subject of this poem is poetic form seen in the metaphor of domestic form—a debate between a husband and wife about how each “shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short.” She claims that he has violated any possible decorums of grief by his lack of expressiveness. Hence, she “must get out of here,” “somewhere out of this house”—this poem, too. He insists that she restrict her expression of grief to the house and to the boundaries of their marital contract, but he is in all this too peculiarly willful for her or for his own good. The poem ends on his exclamation “I will!“—our only sure indication that she has by then gone through the door she has been gradually opening while they talk.

Copyright 1977 Oxford University Press.

This Issue

September 29, 1977